The new institutes will develop materials to allow astronauts to travel lightly to Mars, and biological and microbial technology to make them self-sufficient when they get there.
Each institute consists of researchers that span a variety of disciplines and institutions, all working together in one relatively narrow area of technology. The two new teams are called the Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design (US-COMP) and the Center for the Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space (CUBES).
US-COMP will focus on creating new materials for vehicles, habitats, and whatever other structures astronauts will need on Mars. “The materials that are currently available have the necessary strength requirements, but are too heavy for extended missions and would require excessive fuel consumption,” says US-COMP team leader Gregory Odegard at Michigan Technological University.
The new materials, which will be based on carbon nanotubes, will need to be just as strong, but much lighter.
Astronauts on Mars will need a lot more than just structures, though: they’ll need food, medicine and the ability to make other essentials, even unexpected ones. That’s where CUBES comes in.
“CUBES will work on an integrated way to use biology, starting from the available building blocks, to create all the things that astronauts and settlers will need, from food to pharmaceuticals to fuel,” says Adam Arkin at the University of California, Berkeley, who will lead the CUBES team.
Since spacecraft heading to Mars won’t be able to launch much weight, the CUBES researchers will have to make their final product as light as possible. They’ll send only what they need to extract useful compounds from what’s available on Mars: dust, sunlight, and a thin atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide. Then, those ingredients will be used to create more infrastructure, including fuel and crops, creating a self-sufficient cycle of growth like what we have on Earth.
The team, which includes nanotechnologists, microbiologists, botanists, and a variety of engineers, will work on a way to integrate machinery and microbes to allow astronauts to be self-sufficient on Mars.
The two institutions will each receive $15 million over the course of five years. Both products could have also applications on Earth: after all, we need light materials and efficient production cycles here, too.
“NASA is establishing STRIs to research and exploit cutting-edge advances in technology with the potential for revolutionary impact on future aerospace capabilities,” Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a NASA press release.